KTM says: “Versatility without compromise.” Motorcyclist says: “True, as long as $18,000 doesn’t compromise your bank account.”

What happens when you stuff one of the most tremendous engines available into an off-road chassis designed by a team that's obsessed with dominating in the dirt? You end up with one hot rod of a travel enduro, in this case KTM's new 1290 Super Adventure R. It's 18 grand, 1,301cc, and more than 500 pounds of Austrian aggression, and it's intended to put all other bikes in the ADV category to shame.

Action shot of the new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
Large and in charge. The 1290 Super Adventure R is heavy, it's ridiculously powerful, it's quite expensive, and it works very well. Holding a launch in the remote and rugged desert of Peru speaks volumes about KTM's confidence in its new bike, and after more than 100 miles of intense off roading it's clear that the SA-R is far more capable than I am.Photo: KTM

I know what you're thinking: This is just another high-dollar, two-wheeled SUV that's not really meant to stray far from the pavement. But if you doubt the off-road intent of this machine or its creators, consider this: At the Super Adventure's press introduction in the coastal desert of Peru, our 120-mile test ride wasn't just nearly entirely off pavement, it was mostly off trail. As in we spent miles hauling ass across open desert, laying fresh tracks across everything from colossal sand dunes to red, rock-strewn terrain that looked as alien as any image beamed back from the Mars rover. It was some of the most exciting stuff I've ever ridden, and the Super Adventure R ate it up without breaking a sweat. (I on the other hand was soaked with perspiration—it is summer in the southern hemisphere after all.)

2017 KTM Super Adventure R TFT dash display
That’s 6.5 inches of TFT goodness conveying all the info you could ever want. The brightness adjusts to ambient light, and amazingly the display remains vivid and legible even in direct sunlight thanks to some nifty surface treatment on the glass. You can adjust the angle of the whole thing to suit your height or riding position. As much as I love an analog tach, this is one highly functional display.Photo: KTM
2017 KTM Super Adventure R windshield, wind screen
That stubby windscreen is unique to the Super Adventure R, and rolls through 2 inches of vertical adjustment via the silver “winder” wheel you see on the screen support. Just visible at the bottom of the frame is the integrated cell phone compartment. It’s waterproof and has a USB port to keep your electronics charged.Photo: KTM

The 2017 Super Adventure R is an evolution of the outgoing 1190 Adventure R and last year's street-focused 1290 Super Adventure. It utilizes a massaged version of the 1,301cc V-twin found in the 1290 Super Duke R and slots it into a chassis made up of dirtbike-size 18- and 21-inch wheels shod with knobby tires, 8.7 inches of fully adjustable suspension travel, almost 10 inches of ground clearance, standard-issue crash bars, and loads of electronic technology like lean-angle sensitive TC and ABS, cruise control, keyless ignition, LED lighting, and an iPad-like TFT dash.

2017 KTM Super Adventure R riding in the desert
We didn’t spend much time sitting down during our day-long test ride, but the bike’s off-road ergonomics are ideal. From the (accessory) cleated footpegs to the bike’s narrow waist and wide, tapered-aluminum handlebar, the 1290 is perfectly proportioned and really easy to move around on. If it doesn’t fit you, it’s adjustable: The handlebar mount can be shifted forward by 10mm, and the footpegs offer two positions to fine-tune the riding position.Photo: KTM

Climbing aboard the SA-R is a bit of a chore, with a 35-inch-high seat, and it’s hard to lift off the sidestand due to its weight, but once you’re rolling the bike is every bit as enjoyable as you’d expect a premium Euro machine to be. For one it’s very comfortable, with a firm and well-shaped seat, loads of legroom, and a relaxed reach to a wide handlebar. The reshaped bodywork sends atmosphere streaming smoothly around your legs, and with the adjustable windscreen rolled down to its lowest position the humid Peruvian air did what it could to keep my torso cool.

Power, as you might imagine, is abundant. KTM says there are 160 hp and over 100 pound-feet of torque are on tap, and that herculean 75-degree V-twin delivers all of its ungodly thrust in a completely tractable manner. It shudders and barks as you roll open the throttle, sending the speed readout on the big TFT dash and your soul soaring. This engine will ruin you. There are four ride modes to choose from so you can tune the engine dynamic and ABS to suite your mood or riding conditions, and the 6-gallon tank and cruise control mean the Super Adventure should gulp down miles as readily as Austrians gulp down weissbier. I had to develop my on-road impressions quickly, however, because we only spent about a mile on pavement before veering off into the Paracas Natural Preserve.

2017 KTM Super Adventure R skid plate
A crash cage (that’s bolted directly to the frame, as it should be to be effective) comes standard. Both the cage and frame are coated in orange on the SA-R, and this model comes with a shorter (front to back) one-piece seat. The bike feels remarkably narrow between your knees despite the tank’s 6-gallon capacity. The test bikes were fitted with the optional bash plate, which was ringing like a cymbal as I mobbed through rock gardens.Photo: KTM
1290 Super Adventure R seat
The 1190 Adventure R’s saddle got uncomfortably hot due to the proximity of the rear exhaust header. A layer of insulation and reflective heat shielding on the underside of the 1290 Super Adventure R’s seat help keep your buns from roasting. KTM offers heated and contoured “Ergo” rider and passenger seats in its Power Parts catalog.Photo: KTM

Within the preserve we had to stick to established routes, which were little more than tire tracks across the sand. Our small group of adventurers rode across a dry lakebed, wound up and over huge coastal hills, and skirted cliffs above the ocean. In places the sea had scooped out picturesque coves that were dotted with families on vacation and fishermen catching their dinners. Just offshore, massive islands of stone rose out of the whitewater to stand guard over the rugged coastline.

The relatively tame riding in the park permitted time to soak up the expansive scenery, get used to the bike’s behavior on loose terrain, and play with the ride modes. Toggling over to the “Offroad” mode stunts power to 100 hp, disables combined braking and turns of rear ABS, and allows loads of rear-wheel spin. It’s fun, but I opted to cue up full power via “Street” mode and switch off TC and ABS completely. Power slides, wheelies, and embarrassingly shrill laughter ensued.

KTM press launch in the Peru desert
Break time atop a hill. The Paracas Natural Reserve is comprised of over 450,000 acres of tropical desert, but the purpose of the preserve is to protect some 1,000,000 or so acres of marine area. The reserve is a popular summer destination for tourists and is where we started our day-long, 100-and-something-mile off-road adventure on the Super Adventure R.Photo: KTM

Continental TKC 80s come standard on the SA-R, and in combination with plush WP suspension the Super Adventure was surefooted on rough terrain and slid very progressively. It’s a big bike, but the 1290 is well balanced and my fooling around revealed a remarkably stable machine that tracks true and remains calm and composed well after its rider has started hollering “oh shit!” in his helmet. Don’t plan on sliding and jumping your ADV? No worries. The SA-R is content to plod along at idle and cradle you in sophisticated comfort.

Off-road rider Chris Birch
Who better to ride desert with than some of the most talented off-road riders in the world? Ride leaders included American KTM test rider and four-time Baja 1000 winner Quinn Cody and eight-time New Zealand Enduro champion, three-time Roof of Africa Winner, and Dakar and ISDE competitor Chris Birch (pictured here). Chris was my group’s ride leader, and peppered us with useful desert-riding tips throughout the day.Photo: KTM
New KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
Say what you will about that headlight assembly, but it is distinctive. The housing holds LED headlights as well as six cornering lights (three on each side) that are keyed to the ECU's lean-angle sensor. The SA-R has tubeless spoke wheels and in the US it will come shod with Continental's legendary TKC80 knobbies.Photo: KTM

After a catered lunch atop a cliff overlooking the ocean, we exited the preserve and entered open desert, where our ride leader, eight-time New Zealand Enduro Champion Chris Birch, encouraged us to explore, have fun, and “fear the desert.” He was referring to the frequently changing surface and the visual tricks the landscape can play on you. “Start slow and learn how the different terrain behaves.” It was good advice, because slight changes in surface texture or color might mean hardpack or powder, and cresting a dune might reveal a garden of salt rocks, a scree field, a gully deep enough to swallow a truck, a sea of foot-deep corduroy ripples, or any number of other bizarre and exciting challenges. At one point we were ripping through rolling hills that had a thin crust of dark brown covering yellow powder, so our group of riders was throwing mustard-colored roost and leaving bright-yellow tracks arcing across the landscape.

Our post-lunch ragefest really served to highlight just how capable this monster of a machine is—I was riding hard and having a great time doing it. I did bottom the fork a few times on abrupt hits and the front end would occasionally wag over washboard ripples, but if I forced myself to stay loose and get on the gas it would always calm down. I also felt that the shock rebounded too fast, as it would kick the bike’s tail up over small jumps unless you loaded the suspension and gassed it as you ascended the obstacle. Those characteristics can likely be tuned out of the suspension (I was too busy having fun to stop and make adjustments), and other than that, my only complaint is that the small-footed sidestand isn’t really suited to soft surfaces.

In the afternoon we rode for miles up a beautiful sand valley, skirting the sloped face of a 10-story sand-dune wall. Due to the soft surface you had to be hauling to keep the bike planing. That meant 3rd or 4th gear and 60 mph or more while standing up and leaning back—for a solid 20 minutes. It was an experience I'll never forget, one because the landscape was so magnificent in its barren beauty (the scope of it all rivals anything I've seen in Alaska), and two because the sound and sight of seven 1290 Super Adventure R's at high revs—throwing roost and laying down huge high-speed broad slides—was compelling enough to make any gearhead's heart race.

The new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R engine
Based on the Super Duke R’s engine, this 1301cc V-twin is remarkably efficient at turning gasoline into a steady stream of ungodly thrust. KTM says it cranks out 160 hp and 103 pound-feet of torque, and it does so while remaining totally tractable. In SA-R form this LC8 engine has steel valves instead of titanium, different cam profiles to emphasize midrange torque, and smaller throttle bodies for the same reason. The rev limiter resides somewhere around 10,000 rpm, but you’ll never flirt with it since you’ll be too busy reveling in the midrange torque.Photo: KTM
The new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R hand controls and switches
With so many features you need a lot of buttons to manage everything. The SA-R has new switchgear that’s backlit to make things easier to see at night. Cruise control, a tire-pressure-monitoring system, and a keyless ignition are all fresh features. Keep the key fob in your pocket, wake the beast up with a touch of the “Race On” button, dab the starter, and you’re off. The menu system is extremely thorough, but between the big buttons and that big TFT dash, navigating the labyrinth of options is relatively easy.Photo: KTM

And that engine. My goodness what a motor KTM has created. I love the LC8, but who the hell needs 160 hp off road? “That’s exactly what I asked the R&D guys!” laughs Joachim Sauer, KTM’s offroad product marketing manager, who, prior to joining KTM 30 years ago, was a racer with several European Enduro Championships and an ISDE win to his credit. “I said they were idiots,” laughs Sauer, “but the first time I rode it, my mind was changed.”

I was skeptical, too, but as with Sauer, riding the bike swayed my opinion. If you’ve got the space to use it, 160 hp is definitely a good time. Engine aside, I’m skeptical about this category of bikes in general. I mean, who in their right mind is really going to thrash nearly 20 grand and 500 pounds of premium ADV bike off road? The 1290 SA-R’s existence is all the more questionable given that KTM is poised to release the new 1090 Super Adventure R, which is liable to be a much more popular option in part due to its more reasonable $14,699 price tag.

“It’s like in the SUV world,” says Sauer, “where people want the biggest and best. The buyer might not really intend to ride off road, but he wants to know that he has the ability to do so.”

So KTM built the the Super Adventure R because they know there's a market for premium, all-out ADV machines. And they introduced the press to the bike in the rugged desert of Peru because they knew they'd developed a travel enduro that's as capable as it looks. And it is. At $17,999 and roughly 510 pounds with gas, the Super Adventure R is well positioned to take on BMW's G1200GS Adventure (which starts at $18,700 and has a 580-pound claimed wet weight) and Ducati's Multistrada 1200 Enduro (starts at $21,300, 560-pound claimed wet weight).

There are plenty of other big ADVs out there, but in my mind the BMW and Ducati are the only real competitors for this beast. And with the SA-R’s new features and its bona fide off-road chops, I’m not sure the competition has a chance.

Jumping a 500-pound ADV motorcycle
Jumping is easy—it’s the landing that’s tricky! Sending your 500-pound, $18,000 KTM into the air is not recommended, but the Super Adventure R is entirely capable of some serious foolishness. Just make sure you know where you’re going to land.Photo: KTM

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
KTM slots the Super Duke’s monster 1301cc LC8 into an off-road chassis and ladles on the latest in electronics and technology.
TECH
PRICE $17,999
ENGINE 1301cc liquid-cooled 75° V-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER 160.0 hp @ 8750 rpm
CLAIMED TORQUE 103.3 lb.-ft. @ 6750 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION WP 48mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 8.7 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION WP shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 8.7 in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 267mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 28.0°/4.9 in.
WHEELBASE 62.2 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 35.0 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 6.1 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 478 lbs. (dry)
AVAILABLE April 2017
CONTACT ktm.com
VERDICT
A full-size, fully featured travel enduro with real off-road chops.